Posts

Book Notes: Miles Davis, Biography and Autobiography

As part of my recent Miles Davis binge, I bought two books about the musician. Miles Davis: The Definitive Biography, by Ian Carr (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) and Miles: The Autobiography (Amazon.com, Amazon UK). Both of these books give great insight into Miles’ career, and his music.

4157FM2ZKTL._.jpgIan Carr’s biography is clearly that of a fan. He likes almost all of Miles Davis’ music, even the later albums, which, arguably, are greatly inferior to most of what Miles recorded. He also analyzes the music, somewhat. He discusses most of Miles’ recordings, describing the music. For example, regarding Bitches Brew, he says:

The ensemble pauses, then starts again, and Miles plays a few phrases and then stops.

Descriptions of music like this aren’t very useful, unless you have the music to listen to; and even then, I’m not sure what they add to understanding either a musician’s life or his music.

But Carr is exhaustive, and does seem to discuss every recording session, and every album. He paints a detailed picture of Miles’ life, presenting both the good and the bad without passing judgement. The book also contains a detailed biography, and a discography listing every session Miles recorded.

image001.jpgAs for the autobiography, this is Miles Davis creating his own story. Written with Quincy Troupe, the book was taken from interviews, and reads like Miles spoke. Which means there are lots of “fucks” and “motherfuckers.” Miles seems to tell things as they were, even many of the less respectable things he did in his life. However, Miles comes off as being fairly racist; he rails a lot about white people. If a white person wrote a book like this and said the same things about black people, it would be criticized. Granted, Miles had to put up with a lot of racism in his time, and he did work with white musicians, but it still comes off as angry.

Nevertheless, reading two sides of Miles Davis’ life is interesting. If you’re a fan, it’s worth checking these books out. The biography is more interested, but could have done with some editing to tighten it up. The autobiography, however, lets you hear Miles Davis in his own voice.

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Google+Share on LinkedInEmail this to someone

Music Notes: Taming the Dragon, by Mehliana (Brad Mehldau and Mark Guiliana

taming-the-dragon-cover-art-extralarge_1384969111073.jpgI’ve long been a fan of Brad Mehldau, and I have no problem with him branching off from the standard piano trio format that he’s been exploring for most of his career. While there are some good tracks on this new album, a duo with Mehldau and drummer Mark Guiliana (Amazon.com, Amazon UK, iTunes Store), there are as many throw-aways.

The first track is very self-absorbed, with Brad reading a text about a dream he had; the same text that’s in the liner notes. Several tracks have voices speaking over them, which detract from the music. This type of “voice-over” was a thing back in the 1980s, but it’s just a gimmick now. While there are some good sounds on this album, it really comes across as a hodgepodge of different types of music, with no firm direction.

I like Hungry Ghost, Swimming and a couple of other tracks. But the title track is a waste, Gainsbourg is annoying, and some of the others are just plain mediocre. (Seriously, there’s nothing I want to hear less than the creepy Serge Gainsbourg talking over music.)

This isn’t like Miles Davis discovering electricity; what Mehldau and Guiliana are doing is nothing groundbreaking. They have a lot of potential, and this album shows that they could go far, but they need to be more discerning with what they release.

This album is an example of the type of collection where there are one or two good songs, and the rest of the album is crappy filler. I’m quite disappointed, especially since I really like Hungry Ghost, the track that was released prior to the album release.

Oh, and “Mehliana?” Couldn’t they have come up with something better than that?

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Google+Share on LinkedInEmail this to someone

Essential Music: Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way

220px-Miles-davis-in-a-silent-way.jpgMiles Davis’ career spanned nearly five decades, and he was the engine for much change in jazz. From the early be-bop days through his later fusion, Miles covered just about every type of jazz (with the exception of that abomination called “smooth jazz”). From the early records on Prestige, through the seminal Kind of Blue (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), to later albums like Tutu (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), Miles embraced change.

The year 1969 was exceptionally fecund, with the recording of two radically different albums: In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew. The former is a collection of slow, almost ambient improvisations; the latter uses a similar approach, but with a powerful rhythm section. Both feature electric instruments and develop Miles’ version of jazz fusion.

In a Silent Way (Amazon.com, Amazon UK, iTunes Store) is just over 38 minutes and consists of two songs: Shhh/Peaceful and In a Silent Way/It’s About That Time. Recorded in one day, on February 18, 1969, about three hours of music was used to create these two tracks. With Teo Macero producing Miles for the first time, this record is partly the result of improvisations, partly the result of Macero’s work editing different sections together. For example, on Shhh/Peaceful, Macero took the first six minutes of the track and repeated them at the end, making a piece in three sections which, with this odd edit, works quite well.

While this record could be called fusion, it’s much more. There are electric keyboards, there’s a pulsing beat, but it doesn’t have the rhythmic drive that Bitches Brew shows. Shhh/Peaceful is more rhythmic; In a Silent Way/It’s About That Time shifts between sections that are almost ambient and parts that are more rhythmic. The music is simple, beautiful, and flows like waves.

The list of musicians on this album is one that looks like a hall of fame roster:

Miles Davis – trumpet
Wayne Shorter – soprano saxophone
John McLaughlin – electric guitar
Chick Corea – electric piano
Herbie Hancock – electric piano
Joe Zawinul – organ
Dave Holland – double bass
Tony Williams – drums

This was the first album that John McLaughlin recorded with Miles, and his contributions are excellent, especially in the second section of Shhh/Peaceful. Wayne Shorter has a great sound and his solos are beautiful. The combination of Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock on electric piano, and Joe Zawinul on organ, gives a lush background to the soloists. And the rhythm section is tight.

This is one of Miles Davis’ finest albums, yet it seems that, these days, not too many people know about it. It’s a very accessible album, especially now that this type of long, spacy jamming has become a part of the musical landscape. In many ways, this is similar to the way the Grateful Dead would jam around Dark Star or Playing in the Band.

So if you don’t have this album, I strongly recommend it. If you do own it, then you may need to get The Complete In a Silent Way Sessions (Amazon.com, Amazon UK, iTunes Store). This 3 1/2 hour set includes all the music recorded during this famous day, as well as the final album versions of the two tracks. If you like the music on the album, you’ll love the rest of the jamming from that day.

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Google+Share on LinkedInEmail this to someone

New Release: Miles Davis, The Original Mono Recordings

51jghBW5KkL._SL500_AA280_.jpg I spotted a recent release that will interest many jazz fans: a 9-CD set of the original mono recordings of Miles Davis on Columbia Records. It contains the following albums:

  • ‘Round About Midnight
  • Miles Ahead
  • Milestones
  • Jazz Track
  • Porgy And Bess
  • Kind Of Blue
  • Sketches Of Spain
  • Someday My Prince Will Come
  • Miles And Monk At Newport

By from Amazon.com, Amazon UK, iTunes Store.

As you may know, for these albums, as for other music of the time, the original mixes were made in mono, with the stereo mixes being often rushed out afterwards. Since very few people had stereo playback equipment, mono was the standard. Other artists have released similar sets in recent years: Bob Dylan (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) and The Beatles (Amazon.com, Amazon UK).

It’s interesting to hear these mixes, because they do often have a more refined sound than the stereo mixes (though many stereo remasters are far superior to the original stereo mixes). It’s also a bit of nostalgia: of a time when a record player was a simple device; when you didn’t worry about bit rates and dither; when all that mattered was the music.

If you’re a fan of these artists, you’ll want these releases to compare with the stereo albums you own. You’ll find that, in some cases, the tracks are from different takes, and you’ll certainly find that the music sounds different, because of the way the instruments are prioritized on a one-channel mix.

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Google+Share on LinkedInEmail this to someone

Music Review: Dawn of Midi, Dysnomia – Electro/Jazz/Minimal/Groove for Piano Trio

a3577237463_2.jpgBuy from Bandcamp | iTunes Store | Amazon.com

Dawn of Midi’s Dysnomia is without doubt the coolest new music I’ve heard in a long time. I first heard about it the other day when my son pointed it out to me; he’s mostly into electronic music, and this certainly sounds like electro-groove. But it’s actually a jazz trio, and it’s entirely acoustic. The band says that it took two years to record, and when you realize just what they’re doing, you understand why it took so long.

Dawn of Midi is bassist Aakaash Israni, pianist Amino Belyamani and percussionist Qasim Naqvi, and the music they play on this album is surprising. This 46-minute work, divided into nine sections, has the sound of electronic music, the groove of dance music, and the hypnotic rhythms of minimalism. At times, it channels Steve Reich’s phasing music; at other times, it’s got the groove of Daft Punk. It’s got Middle-eastern sounds, danceable rhythms and a groove that you’ll tap your foot to.

Here’s a video showing how they play:

If you like minimalism, or electronic music, I think you’ll find this to be the most interesting album you’ve heard in years. Listen to the entire album on Bandcamp and see if you agree with me. I’m looking forward to hearing more from Dawn of Midi.

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Google+Share on LinkedInEmail this to someone

Essential Music: Bill Evans Live in 1980

Bill Evans may have been the greatest jazz pianist ever, but his life was, unfortunately, too short. Born in 1929, he died on September 15, 1980, of a bleeding ulcer, cirrhosis and pneumonia. A drug addict for much of his career – he had periods where he was hooked on heroin, and others on cocaine – his death was what a friend called “the longest suicide in history.”

Yet when Bill Evans sat down at the piano, magic come from his fingers. From playing piano as a sideman, such as on Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, widely considered to be the best jazz album of all time, to his first live recordings, Live at the Village Vanguard, made in 1961, and through dozens of solo and trio recordings over the following two decades.

In 1980, Evans didn’t know he was at the end, but there is a feeling of wistful nostalgia in his live performances of those last months. Fortunately, many of them were recorded, and there are three essential box sets of music from this period.

In June 1980, Evans played several dates at the Village Vanguard, and a six-disc set of these performances, Turn Out the Stars, was released in 1996. Recorded from June 4 to June 8, with bass player Marc Johnson, and drummer Joe LaBarbera, there is just over six and a half hours of music on this set, with notably a number of very long performances of Miles Davis’ Nardis, which was Evans’ signature jamming song. (It allowed both the bass player and drummer to take extensive solos.)

From August 31 to September 8, 1980, Evans played a series of dates at the Keystone Korner in San Francisco. Again, there are extensive recordings of these shows, with two 8-CD box sets available: The Last Waltz contains music from the first sets, and Consecration has tracks from the second sets. Just a week before his death, Evans was playing some of his finest performances. These were recorded on the sly, but the quality of the sound is excellent.

Evans played a combination of standards and his own compositions, and his improvisational ability is such that you barely notice it at times; it often sounds like the songs were written exactly as he played them, but as you listen to different versions, you can hear the changes.

I have long loved Evans’ music, and particularly these recordings from the end of his life. I first bought Turn Out the Stars in 1996, after listening to bits of it at a record store. My knowledge of jazz was quite limited then (and isn’t a whole lot more extensive now), but I immediately heard Evans’ masterful playing. When the other two box sets came out in 2000 and 2002, I bought them immediately. I have many Bill Evans recordings – I bought a couple of box sets of his complete recordings on different labels – but these are the ones I return to most, along with the 1961 Village Vanguard recordings. If you like jazz piano, these are essential recordings to own. If you just want one of the sets, I’d recommend Turn Out the Stars, which, with six discs, covers a wide variety of the songs Evans played.

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Google+Share on LinkedInEmail this to someone

Album Notes: Brad Mehldau, Live in Marciac

Buy from Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Amazon FR

I’ve been a fan of Brad Mehldau’s music for many years now, and own all of his releases (as main performer, not as sideman). I think he’s an extremely innovative pianist, and I especially like his work with his trio. This new album, recorded live at the Marciac Jazz Festival in France, in 2006, features a solo performance, one of only two live solo releases he has made (the other is the 2004 Live in Tokyo).

This is an attractive album, with energetic performances, and flattering sound. (I felt that the Live in Tokyo album had somewhat brittle, harsh sound.) In solo performances, Melhdau tends to wander a bit more than when he has a rhythm section backing him, and this album is a bit less attractive than his live recordings with his trio (such as the 2008 Live at the Village Vanguard). But it’s a fine example of his work, and any fan of jazz piano should definitely get this. Not only does it have two CDs, but also a DVD, with all but one of the songs. (I haven’t watched the DVD yet.)

However, there’s one thing I need to point out. I ordered this set directly from the label, Nonesuch, which provides MP3s by download as soon as the album is released, so you can listen to the music before you get the discs. There are some oddities on some of the tracks: a couple of them end with loud applause that doesn’t fade out; it just cuts off as the next track starts. For example, Lilac Wine has very loud applause at the end (and it deserves it; it’s a beautiful song), then cuts off immediately as Martha My Dear begins. But at the end of Martha My Dear, the same thing happens; it cuts from applause to My Favorite Things.

It is not normal that a professionally edited album would have this abrupt cut between tracks, and, now that I have the CDs, I can see that it’s the MP3s files that were truncated. In fact, in the MP3 files, four of the songs on the second disc – the ones that have the abrupt edits – are missing a total of over 2 minutes. From the amount of applause, it seems like Lithium was the last track in the set, and the rest were encores. Nonesuch’s MP3s are therefore just hacked off at the ends, and there’s no reason for this. So do buy the CDs; don’t buy any MP3s from Nonesuch. I note that Amazon is not selling this in MP3 format, but the timings on iTunes are the same as the bad MP3s I got from Nonesuch, so if you want this album, get it on plastic. While you don’t miss any of the music, the abrupt cut from applause to music is jarring and annoying.

UPDATE: I heard back from Nonesuch, who replied, “We have looked into this issue, and have learned that the original MP3s were indeed mistakenly truncated. We have corrected the files.” So apparently the files will be fixed on their site and on iTunes, but if you do have the truncated files, do get in touch with whoever you purchased them from to get new copies.

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Google+Share on LinkedInEmail this to someone

Music Review: Brad Mehldau Live in Tokyo

Live in Tokyo
Brad Mehldau
Nonesuch, 2004

Buy from Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Amazon FR | iTunes

About a year ago, a friend turned my on to Brad Mehldau. We had been corresponding by e-mail, talking about music, and I mentioned that I was a big Bill Evans fan. The friend mentioned Mehldau, suggesting that I look into one of his Art of the Trio albums. I did. I was hooked.Now, with about ten Brad Mehldau albums – some solo, but most with his trio – I’ve become and unconditional fan. So I keep my eyes open for every new release. This new recording, his first with his new label Nonesuch, is the first live solo disc he has made. He performs many familiar songs, a few new ones, and the now-obligatory Radiohead cover (a nearly 20 minute rendition of Paranoid Android).

The sound is great; the piano seems recorded from a slight distance, allowing the music to bloom in the hall, and the performance is what I have come to expect from Mehldau: tight, yet flexible, with restrained improvisation that highlights his creativity and feeling for the music.

My favorite track on the album is River Man, the final track, a somewhat melancholy ballad that is perfectly fitting for the last song of a set or a recording. Here, Mehldau takes the repetitive left-hand part as a solid base for a lyrical improvisation of the song’s simple tune, and increases the tension and complexity as he goes on. Sheer bliss.

There is something interesting to note about this album. It is available in two forms: on CD and by download from the iTunes Music Store. What is interesting, however, is that the iTunes Music Store offers the equivalent of a double CD for a little more than the usual album price ($13.99), whereas this double CD is not available on plastic. Even more surprising, the iTunes Music Store does not mention this difference, and the only indication on Brad Mehldau’s web site is a link on the main page, but there’s nothing on the page for the disc itself. It’s almost as if they wanted to keep it under wraps, to see whether fans notice.

So, if you just have to have the disc, go for plastic; but if you want the music, you get about two hours’ worth from the iTunes Music Store version. In either case, go for it: this is perhaps Mehldau’s best recording yet.

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Google+Share on LinkedInEmail this to someone